Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Nothing Stands Between Us - John Mark McMillan

by Leo Wheelan

Worship song reflection of the Month:

Nothing Stands Between Us - John Mark McMillan

In his song, Nothing Stands Between Us, I believe John Mark McMillan expounds on two ideas about encounter with God. Firstly, that the power and beauty of nature fills us with a sense of awe and wonder which reflects the greatness of its creator. And, secondly, that this experience ought to move and encourage us to find time for silence in our lives where, through prayer, we can enter into relationship with Him.

The song begins – strangely enough – with the first verse:

‘River of gladness, fill my soul

Jesus, you're my greatest thought
God, I know
I see the light
I see the lightning
I hear Your voice
Inside the cracking thunder, singing’

I think the ‘River of gladness’ is a nod to Psalm 46:4: ‘There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells’.
This river represents the source of all our joy and McMillan pleads with it to well up within him. He recognizes that we need to look beyond our world and to God in order to find a lasting joy. He then notes that our greatest thought, our greatest aim, is to be more Christ-like. We do this essentially through prayer. The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes prayer as ‘the raising of one’s mind and heart to God’.  It follows that whenever our thoughts are lifted towards God, we are engaging in prayer, in dialogue, with Him. The moments in life where we are captivated by beauty – seeing a star-studded night time sky or hearing the Emperor concerto for the first time (go on, check it out – it could be the best forty minutes of your day) – are lasting and formative experiences precisely because within them lies an encounter with God. McMillan hears God’s voice ‘inside the cracking thunder’, within nature herself, calling him to that encounter.

Featuring heavy use of the musical device of repetition, the chorus then proclaims:

‘Nothing stands between us, oh

nothing stands between us but love now.
Nothing stands between us, oh
nothing stands between us but love'

This imagery typifies a homecoming moment, a realisation on McMillan’s part that God has always been waiting for him to simply turn his heart towards Him in prayer. And He’s always waiting for us to do the same. Though it has to be said, it’s a very bold claim. I find that time and again, I can feel unworthy of God’s love, through my own insecurities, doubts and failures. Henri J.M. Nouwen, in his book ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ (which I highly recommend), points out that ‘one of the greatest challenges in life is to receive God’s forgiveness.’ God can often remain for me a harsh and judgmental God, one who demands everything of me and causes me to worry whenever I stumble. This is simply not the reality of God’s nature, and I find I need reminding of the fact that, through the Cross, there is nothing that can stand between us, but love.

The second verse is musically similar to the first, with the only lyrical alteration found in the first two lines:

‘River of gladness take control,

there’s a cup of joy for every taste of sorrow.’

Within these lines can be found advice that can change an entire outlook on life. When we get caught up in our own trials, however great or small, it is so easy to become bitter and resentful. This is obviously not a place that anyone wishes to be in, and so McMillan rightly points out that despite every difficulty, trial or tribulation, we have so much to be thankful for. I do not wish to minimise or make light of some of the great suffering which some people have endured, but to point out that it is incumbent upon each of us to take up our cross with joy. That way, you make manifest the ‘River of gladness’ in your daily life in a way that transforms you and ‘makes glad the city of God’.

The lyrics of the final movement of the piece are as follows:

‘Have I tried to scale Your walls in vain?

To cross your seas I pushed against your waves.
What for all the miles have You to say?
Were You there beside me this whole way?
You always find me
In between the thunder and the lightning.’

This penultimate stanza speaks of a personal vision of who God is for us. Do we completely trust His sovereignty, or do we put other gods before Him? Are there things taking up residence in our hearts where only God should be? A relationship, your new house or even yourself? Whatever these things might be, I believe they prevent us from handing our lives over to Him, which in turn limits the action of God’s grace in our lives.

If this song could be likened to a long family car journey home, then the questions raised in the second to last stanza could describe the final few miles. After bickering over who sits where, endless arguments over who saw the yellow car first, tears about the last pack of sweets etc., we as children realise that mum and dad have wanted nothing but to get us there safely. We’ve put ourselves in the centre of our own universe for the entirety of the journey before even considering where we are going and what we can do to help get ourselves there. So often this is the case for me with God, too. I neglect to turn to Him in thanksgiving for this great gift of life; I fail to seek His guidance in where I am going and I hurt the people around me in the process.

This is why it is so crucial, in the busyness of life, to make time for silent prayer and contemplation. We can begin to apprehend God in the beauty of the natural world or a work of art, but this experience is only supposed to direct our thoughts higher towards a prayerful relationship with Him. McMillan conveys the idea that God always seeks us first, before we have even considered approaching Him. We can become aware of His majesty in the terrifying flash of lightning and the deep rumble of thunder, but the place that He truly finds us is between them, in the stillness and silence.


Monday, 28 January 2019

Saint Thomas Aquinas - January Saint of the Month

By Luca McQuillian

Saint Profile:
Name: St Thomas Aquinas
Also known as: The Angelic Doctor, Doctor of Doctors
Feast Day: January 28th
Patron saint of: Students, Theologians,Philosophers
Canonized by: Pope John XXII

Why St Thomas?

St Thomas Aquinas is a legend. That much has to be said at the outset. His extensive and impressive works have not only inspired many theologians and philosophers but they have a foundation in the teachings of the Church itself.  After St. Augustine, he is the most quoted in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In fact, he is the ONLY person prescribed to us by the Church in the Code of Canon Law (1983) in connection with the study of theology – this means that the Church itself recommends him by name. “Students are to learn to penetrate more intimately the mysteries of salvation, especially with St. Thomas as a teacher.”
However, being proclaimed so eminently by the Church has been for good reason. His incredible mind was coupled with a high degree of sanctity which together made him earn the title Angelic Doctor.

Who is he?

Born in 1225 as the youngest of a rich family in Italy, St Thomas grew up being educated by Benedictines in Monte Cassino and sent to the University of Naples very early on. During his studies, he was heavily inspired by several philosophers including Aristole, and was also significantly influenced by a Dominian preacher called St. Julian, who encouraged him to join the Dominican Order. However, when his parents heard of it they were unhappy about this vocation, and locked him away in the castle of Roccasecca for a year. His brothers even went as far as locking a prostitute in the room with him in order to seduce him. St Thomas, however, chased the woman away with a hot iron rod and so preserved his purity – it is on account of this that it is said that angels came and girded him to preserve his chastity perpetually. His family finally gave in and allowed him to escape after which St Thomas, faithfully as a Dominican continued his studies.

He was a quiet student, and as a consequence some thought he was slow, calling him a “Dumb Ox”. Ironically only a few years later he began to teach in Cologne, Paris, Naples and finally was summoned to Rome to serve as a papal theologian, all the while writing books which are still read today. It was during this time that he wrote his most famous work, the Summa Theologiae, originally his lecture notes for beginners in theology. Within it, one of his striking comments included “a doctor of Catholic truth ought not only to teach the proficient, but to him pertains also to instruct beginners”. He also wrote many of the most beautiful hymns that are still sung in honour of the Blessed Sacrament: Anima Christi, O Salutaris Hostia, Tantum Ergo…

Near the end of his life St Thomas had an encounter with Christ while in prayer. No one fully knows what happened but afterwards he abandoned his writing (leaving the Summa Theologiae still unfinished) and when asked why, he would reply that everything he had written is like straw compared to the reality of his experience.

In May 1274 St Thomas was called to the Second Council of Lyon but fell ill on the way and eventually died. Pope Pius V canonized him in 1323 and declared him a Doctor of the Church.

How has St Thomas inspired you?

As a student of Catholic theology for a number of years, I am indebted to his intelligence and wisdom in helping me to delve deeper into the mysteries of the faith. I love to study, and I love when things make sense. His logical and reasoned approach has allowed me to understand more and more how perfectly faith and reason go hand in hand. If anyone doubted this they would just have to read one of his works, or perhaps for those unseasoned with his terminology, the work of a contemporary writer who explains St Thomas.

Reading the Summa, for example, can be a bit raw, but having it explained opens up a whole depth to the mysteries of the faith. Delving deeper and deeper St Thomas seems to leave no question unanswered. Learning how much more there is to our faith and how I all fits in so perfectly has opened my eyes in unimaginable ways and has helped my own spiritual life grow.

Why is he relevant NOW?

"To those who have faith, no explanation is necessary. To those without faith, no explanation is possible" - St Thomas Aquinas

St Thomas Aquinas is such an important saint to get to know and reflect on, especially in these times. People want rational explanations for everything; they want reason to be the starting point; they want authentic truth. There are many intellectuals out there who know a lot about other things, but they too, seek the answers for what really matters. St Thomas is relevant, for this is the direction his discourses take. Indeed, as St. John Paul II said; “Saint Thomas is an authentic model for all who seek the truth.”

As Catholics we ourselves should always be seeking the truth and striving to understand it better. Like St Thomas, we should educate ourselves in the mysteries of the faith, and through it, deepen our own trust and relationship with God. 

St Thomas also answers the many of the questions that Catholics are asked in a way that is clear and truthful, as St Pius X wrote, St Thomas’ “divine genius fashioned weapons marvellously suited to protect the truth and destroy the many errors of the times.” Many of the errors that St Thomas was combatting have come back, disguised under other names and with slight changes; his words hold relevant for them too. Indeed, we are living in a time where the world often tries to tell us that what is wrong still feels 'right', and Christian truths on several topics are too often silenced or repressed.

Like St Thomas, we must be aware that these errors must be destroyed by the truth. We must fight with sanctity and true knowledge, and be willing to stand up for what is right - for these are the weapons of light that will bring Jesus into the heart of our brothers and sisters.

3 Lessons from St Thomas:
  • Love God first, in all that you do
  • Love the Bible and have an extensive knowledge of it (the word of God is a powerful weapon)
  • Study well, it is a gift from God for you to be able to learn and by studying well you can glorify God in it.

St. Thomas Aquinas prayer for Students
(he himself used to recite this)

“Grant me, O Lord my God,
a mind to know you,
a heart to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
and a hope of finally embracing you.”

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